Use of acoustic tools to reveal otherwise cryptic responses of forest elephants to oil exploration

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Most evaluations of the effects of human activities on wild animals have focused on estimating changes in abundance and distribution of threatened species; however, ecosystem disturbances also affect aspects of animal behavior such as short-term movement, activity budgets, and reproduction. It may take a long time for changes in behavior to manifest as changes in abundance or distribution. Therefore, it is important to have methods with which to detect short-term behavioral responses to human activity. We used continuous acoustic and seismic monitoring to evaluate the short-term effects of seismic prospecting for oil on forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in Gabon, Central Africa. We monitored changes in elephant abundance and activity as a function of the frequency and intensity of acoustic and seismic signals from dynamite detonation and human activity. Elephants did not flee the area being explored; the relative number of elephants increased in a seasonal pattern typical of elsewhere in the ecosystem. In the exploration area, however, they became more nocturnal. Neither the intensity nor the frequency of dynamite blasts affected the frequency of calling or the daily pattern of elephant activity. Nevertheless, the shift of activity to nocturnal hours became more pronounced as human activity neared each monitored area of forest. This change in activity pattern and its likely causes would not have been detected through standard monitoring methods, which are not sensitive to behavioral changes over short time scales (e.g., dung transects, point counts) or cover a limited area (e.g., camera traps). Simultaneous acoustic monitoring of animal communication, human, and environmental sounds allows the documentation of short-term behavioral changes in response to human disturbance. © 2010 Society for Conservation Biology.

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Conservation Biology

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